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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

ISIL leader Al Baghdadi probably "still alive" says top US commander 

Extremist group's chief suspected to be hiding in Euphrates valley area between Iraq and Syria

ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi delivers a sermon at Mosul's Grand Al Nuri Mosque in July 2014, days after the Iraqi city was captured by his extremist group. Militant video via AP
ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi delivers a sermon at Mosul's Grand Al Nuri Mosque in July 2014, days after the Iraqi city was captured by his extremist group. Militant video via AP

ISIL chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is probably "still alive" and likely hiding in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, a senior US general said, contradicting Russia's claim that it probably killed the extremist group's leader months ago.

"Do I believe he's alive? Yes," said Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

At first, Lt Gen Townsend said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen — "rumour or otherwise" — that Al Baghdadi was dead. But he then added: "There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's alive."

In June, Russian officials said there was a "high probability" that Al Baghdadi died in a Russian air strike on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, a month earlier.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Baghdad, Gen Townsend said US and coalition forces were actively searching for ISIL's top chief. If they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him, he said.

Gen Townsend admitted he didn't "have a clue" where Al Baghdadi was precisely, but believes he may have fled with many other ISIL fighters into the Middle Euphrates region stretching from Syria to Iraq, after coalition and local forces launched offensives on the ISIL bastions of Mosul, Raqqa and Tal Afar.

"The last stand of ISIL will be in the Middle Euphrates River Valley," he said.

"When we find him, I think we'll just try to kill him first. It's probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him."

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With a $25 million (Dh92m) US bounty on his head, Iraq-born Al Baghdadi has successfully avoided an intense effort to seek him out for six years or more.

The most recent ISIL setback was in Tal Afar, west of the also recently liberated city of Mosul which had been the militants' main stronghold in Iraq. The Iraqi government announced Thursday that Tal Afar had been returned to government control. Gen Townsend called it a "stunningly swift" victory for the Iraqi army, moving "like a steamroller" into the city in a matter of days.

Assessing his 12 months in command of the US-led coalition, the general said more tough fighting remained but the signs were positive.

He said it would be "up to the Iraqi government to safeguard the gains troops have achieved since 2015", when Iraqi security forces began a US-assisted counteroffensive in the western Anbar province.

ISIL militants swept into Iraq in 2014 against minimal resistance from the Iraqi army and still control a large area of eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, as well as parts of Raqqa, the capital of the group's self-styled caliphate. Gen Townsend said US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces had recaptured about half of Raqqa so far.

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